When Ethan Hawke was 24, he became a Gen X pinup thanks to “Reality Bites.”
As Troy Dyer, a good-looking slacker and aspiring musician with a wisp of a Van Dyke beard and a duffel bag full of unearned wisdom about life and materialism, Hawke defined the fears and hopes of young adults in the MTV era. But fame had a stultifying quality for the actor, who says he had trouble coming to terms with the success of the 1994 romantic comedy-drama.
“When you’re in your early 20s and you’re still struggling to find out who you are, it pours gasoline on the fire of confusion,” says Hawke. “You don’t know north or south, east or west. Some people hated the [‘Reality Bites’] character and they hated me, or they loved the character and they loved me. I didn’t know enough about acting then to understand what was going on.”
The concept of fame, both its irresistible allure and the scorpion sting it can deliver to those who achieve it, drives the action in Hawke’s two upcoming films, “Blaze” and “Juliet, Naked.” It’s easy to see the movies as part of a larger effort by the 47-year-old actor to make sense of his own celebrity. “Juliet, Naked” finds him playing a middle-aged rocker named Tucker Crowe who turned his back on the klieg lights and is now living in relative obscurity. Crowe reminds Hawke of Dyer two decades after the events of “Reality Bites.”
“Blaze,” which Hawke wrote and directed (but does not act in), centers on Blaze Foley, a country music singer-songwriter and intimate of Townes Van Zandt who barely managed to build a cult following. Foley’s trajectory — the musician’s drinking and self-destructiveness cost him a shot at the big time — couldn’t be further removed from Hawke’s own experience: The actor has been in the public eye since he was a teenager, first turning heads as a prep schooler in 1989’s “Dead Poets Society.” Still, the tale of a “never was” proved more irresistible to Hawke than the chronicle of a musical giant.
“Most biopics deal with someone famous and tell you that their story is worth telling because they’re famous,” says Hawke. “But Blaze’s life seemed more insightful because it wasn’t the Mozart story of genius. He wasn’t a genius. He was like most people who work hard and try to do their best even when they’re usually met with complete indifference.”
That’s not how Hawke is being received lately. Critics embraced “Blaze” and “Juliet, Naked” when they screened at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, and the actor scored some of the best reviews of his career playing a tortured priest in Paul Schrader’s recently released “First Reformed.” In a few short months he’ll return to Broadway to star opposite Paul Dano in a revival of Sam Shepard’s “True West.” He’ll also be back on-screen playing Pat Garrett in “The Kid.”
Hawke appears, for lack of a better term, to be having a moment — one amplified by the fact that both “Blaze” and “Juliet, Naked” hit theaters on Aug. 17.
His once youthful face grown creased around the edges and flecks of gray sprinkled throughout his brown hair, Hawke has aged into more compelling roles and projects. “He was a little too pretty for quite a while,” notes Schrader. “He had sort of a male model face, and that can work against you. But he looks so much more interesting now.”
The current mini film festival of all things Hawke is the result of years of careful planning and a steadfast refusal to take a more conventional path. Even as the world opened up to the actor and Hollywood starting offering him the kind of splashy roles — such as “Independence Day” and “Batman Forever” — that could have guaranteed him a spot on the A-list, Hawke marched to the beat of his own drum. He popped up in indie films, most notably Richard Linklater’s “Before” trilogy, returned frequently to the stage (appearing in the 2006 Broadway debut of Tom Stoppard’s “The Coast of Utopia”) and wrote novels, such as the critically reviled “The Hottest State” and the more enthusiastically received “Rules for a Knight.”
Jason Blum, who produced such Hawke films as “Sinister” and “The Purge,” has been friends with the actor since the 1990s, growing so close that he’s godfather to Hawke’s daughter Maya. He says Hawke was uncomfortable with the “Reality Bites” notoriety but came away from the experience with a more nuanced appreciation of celebrity.
“Ethan has always had a very healthy relationship with Hollywood,” Blum tells Variety. “He knows enough not to get too close to the flame.”
Perhaps part of the reluctance to revel in the perks of stardom comes from personal experience. Hawke made his film debut in 1985’s “Explorers” opposite River Phoenix, and he admits he was jealous watching his friend and contemporary score the best parts in the biggest movies. He also saw how fame and the constant swirl of approbation and attention helped lead to Phoenix’s death from a drug overdose at 23. It has a particularly corrosive effect on those who rise to great heights early on, Hawke believes.
|Hawke wrote and directed the true-life story of troubled country-western musician Blaze Foley (Ben Dickey, left).|
“Success can be like formaldehyde,” he says. “It wants to freeze-dry you and have you stay the same. When it happens to you when you’re young, it can be really damaging. When I see someone like Britney Spears shaving her head or Elvis or Michael Jackson becoming grotesque versions of themselves as they age, I know exactly what’s going on. I understand it.”
When Hawke was at the peak of his appeal, he opted to abandon big money offers and hook up with Linklater for “Before Sunrise,” the story of two twentysomethings who meet on a train and spend all night walking around Vienna. His working relationship with Hawke, Linklater says, is one that’s defined by a shared sense of humor and a loose dynamic. It has resulted in eight films and a Scorsese-De Niro type of alliance. At one point, when Hawke and Linklater were shooting 2014’s “Boyhood,” a family drama that took 12 years to make, Linklater says he had a realization.
“It just sort of percolated up that we’re in it for the long haul,” recalls the director. “I knew that we were going to be artistic collaborators for life.”
For years, moviegoers used to come up to Linklater and express surprise that they’d enjoyed Hawke’s performance in one or the other of his films. It was, he notes, a backhanded compliment. More recently, as the “Before” films have focused on their central lovers (played by Hawke and Julie Delpy) as they deal with parenthood and careers, and as other Linklater collaborations such as “Boyhood” have showcased Hawke in middle age, the director has noticed that the reception has changed. Perhaps, he thinks, it’s because Hawke has endured off-screen drama as well, namely a messy divorce from Uma Thurman and a subsequent marriage to Ryan Shawhughes that provided plenty of tabloid fodder.
“People take him seriously as an artist now,” says Linklater. “I always used to tell Ethan, ‘I can’t wait to see what you’re going to do in your 40s and 50s. You’re going to come into your own at that age.’”
“Success can be like formaldehyde. It wants to freeze-dry you and have you stay the same.”
Hawke says he learned as much from his failures as his successes. “The Hottest State,” his first literary effort and the story of an actor who falls in love with a singer, was dismissed as indulgent; Entertainment Weekly sniffed that “this coltish effort would never have gotten onto a major publisher’s racetrack were it not for Hawke’s celebrity.” But he kept writing, publishing two more books and a graphic novel.
“There were definitely reviews where you’d go, ‘Wow, you really piss people off when you don’t stay in your lane,” he says. “But that kind of negativity makes you strong. It means you’re not doing it for the accolades. You’re doing it in service of the art.”
“Blaze” is one of those gigs done purely out of artistic passion, not for a payday. The film skips backward and forward in time, forming a kaleidoscopic portrait of a burly musician whose talent for writing about hard-luck cases took him from dive bar to roadhouse without moving him out of obscurity. By skirting the kind of meteoric rise, fall and revival that defines musical dramas such as “Ray” or “Walk the Line,” “Blaze” makes it clear it isn’t interested in reviving the clichés of a well-worn genre. Moreover, Hawke’s decision to cast Ben Dickey, a rocker without a single acting credit to his name, as Foley was a bold bet made without any commercial consideration. He believed that Dickey could draw on personal experience for the part, because his band Blood Feathers seemed perpetually to be on the verge of breaking out without ever getting mainstream recognition.
“I expected great things for him, but then I watched him struggling in much the same way that Blaze did,” explains Hawke. “I knew he could give a performance that was real and authentic because he had shed blood over the same things.”
Dickey gives a towering interpretation of the country-western singer, capturing his stumbling gait and his mumbling baritone. The lived-in performance won an acting prize for Dickey at Sundance. On set, the neophyte film star says he placed his trust entirely in Hawke and used his nervousness as fuel. In turn, Hawke took a very hands-on approach with the actor.
“Ethan is keen on getting you to understand the wind behind the scene,” says Dickey. “When needed, he will elevate his energy to pull everyone up to where they need to be. I’d say he’s not a barker, but he’s not quite a whisperer either.”
|Juliet, Naked: The romantic comedy stars Hawke as a former rocker who is drawn out of his shell by the girlfriend (Rose Byrne) of a fan.
As he was editing “Blaze,” Hawke was also shooting “Juliet, Naked.” The romantic comedy was a chance for him to appear in a Nick Hornby adaptation after having auditioned for and failing to land roles in “About a Boy” and “High Fidelity.” Like those films, “Juliet, Naked” is a lighthearted affair, but it also serves as a thematic cousin to “Blaze.” Ostensibly it is the story of a woman (Rose Byrne) whose internet flirtation with the musical idol of her estranged husband (Chris O’Dowd) blossoms into a real love affair. But “Juliet, Naked” also dissects a toxic kind of fandom and the crushing pressure of being labeled the voice of a generation.
Hawke says he admired, even envied, his character Tucker Crowe’s decision to surrender the creature comforts of celebrity and to retire to a more peaceful life raising his young son. Yet any angst he may feel about his chosen profession doesn’t come through on-screen. “Juliet, Naked” is one of Hawke’s loosest and most charming performances. It’s the work of an actor who is at ease in his own skin — a hide that’s been hardened by decades spent in the arena of Hollywood.
“You realize at a young age the world isn’t rooting for you,” says Hawke. “You always tell your kids to follow their dreams. You don’t tell grown-ups to do that. But if you act as your own champion, time will eventually be your ally.”